On his new album, Ideal Man, Combs worked with producer/engineer Sam Cohen (Kevin Morby, Benjamin Booker) to achieve a more raw, direct sound. The collection was captured live in Cohen’s Brooklyn studio, with compact, muscular arrangements fuelled by taut, elastic grooves, and also featuring Combs’ longtime collaborators, drummer Dom Billet and guitarist/keyboardist/bassist Jerry Bernhardt. While Combs may be best known as a singer/songwriter in the classic 1970s Laurel Canyon sense of the term, he proves the true versatility of his work here, often setting his acoustic aside in favour of atmospheric synthesisers and distorted electric guitars. The songwriting for Ideal Man was partly inspired by Combs’ recent fascination with painting. Combs started painting when his wife was pregnant. (They welcomed a daughter in 2017.) “It really changed the way that I write songs,” he reflects. “When I paint, I might start with a very abstract idea or maybe even just a feeling, but from there I’ll paint and scrape and paint and erase and keep on painting until something starts to take shape. I just let nature play out.”
“I’ve never felt so visually stimulated as I am right now, and this has been a really unique way for me to make sense of the record as a whole, to find some sort of common thread between the music and my life.”
Enamoured with the fresh creative avenues that painting opened up for him, Combs applied the same approach to his music, beginning songs with an emotion rather than a concept and treating lyrical and melodic ideas as raw material that could be added to or layered over at any point. When he heard the finished recordings, the songs in turn suggested entire canvases in his mind, and Combs began work on a series of oil paintings designed to accompany each track on the album.
“I started seeing all these motifs and symbols when I listened to the songs,” reflects Combs, who plans to present the album and the paintings together in a joint listening party/gallery show. “Some of the pieces are more representational and some are more abstract, but I’m ultimately trying to capture the mystical qualities of each tune rather than the analytical.”
Fatherhood is another obvious source for Combs’ change in perspective and the record reflects the emotional rollercoaster that comes with raising a child in such turbulent times. No longer simply an observer documenting the world as he sees it, Combs finds himself thrust into the role of protector and guardian on these songs, which means that joy and hope often come packaged with fear and frustration, anger and anxiety. “So often I find myself just sad and disappointed in humanity these days,” he explains. “I’m scared for my daughter and her future on so many levels,” adds Combs, explaining the tumultuous character of some of the album’s lyrical content.
Combs first began garnering national attention for his music with the release of ‘Worried Man,’ his acclaimed 2012 debut. The record, which received the deluxe reissue treatment this year, earned Combs a slot at the iconic Newport Folk Festival alongside dates with Shovels & Rope and Houndmouth, and it prompted American Songwriter to proclaim that “[as far as] first albums go, it’ll be tough to beat this as one of the year’s finest.” Combs followed it up in 2015 with the similarly well-received ‘All These Dreams,’ which landed him performances with Kacey Musgraves and Eric Church among others, and then signed to New West Records in 2017 for his breakout third album, ‘Canyons Of My Mind.’ Songs from that record racked up more than 15 million streams on Spotify and prompted raves from Rolling Stone to NPR, who hailed him as “one of Nashville’s most poetically gifted young singer-songwriters.”
A Dallas native, Combs has called Nashville home since 2006, but when it came time to record ‘Ideal Man,’ he opted for a change, heading to Jupiter Recordings in Brooklyn, where he and his bandmates—drummer Dom Billet and multi-instrumentalist Jerry Bernhardt—cut the album in a series of short bursts with Cohen both playing guitar and producing.
“One of the things I really admired about Sam is that he wants to capture a moment,” says Combs. “In the past, I’ve tended to pursue a studio sound that was really polished and clean, but I wanted to do something different this time, and I knew that working with Sam would lead to more of a loose, psychedelic, spaced-out vibe. We did everything live in the studio, even my vocals, and there’s a sense of immediacy and discovery in those early takes that you can’t recreate.”
It’s that immediacy that reaches out and grabs you by the lapel on album opener “Stars of Longing,” an insightful, questioning gem that begins the record with a snare drum cracking like a gunshot. Propelled by a deep-in-the-pocket rhythm section groove, the track marries elements of classic soul and funk with psych-rock and sweeping folk as Combs challenges and explores the spiritual journey he’s been on since his Catholic school days in Texas. “All I’ve learned is all I really know / There’s only love,” he sings, piercing through the pomp and politics of organised religion to get down to the core of it all. The hazy title track bluntly grapples with identity and insecurity, while the R&B-influenced “Hide and Seek” laments the games lovers play to avoid saying what they really mean, and the minimalist “Like A Feather” strips romance down to its bare essentials.
“This was the first song I wrote for the album, and it started as an experiment to see if I could write something with just three chords,” says Combs. “I was trying to get myself out of the mindset that the more chords you use, the better the song is, and this one really opened up the door for me to write the rest of the record.”
Combs worked with some of his favourite writers on the album, including Dylan LeBlanc, Jeff Trott, Joe Henry, and Kenny Childers, but the stories he tells here are deeply personal and remarkably vulnerable. The heartrending “Firestarter” watches helplessly as a friend self-destructs, and the tender “Golden” finds Combs balancing the beauty of witnessing his daughter grow up with the wistfulness of knowing that she can’t stay a child forever. It’s perhaps “Born Without A Clue,” though, that best captures the emotional push and pull at play on the album.
“That song’s about being a dad, certainly, but I also think it’s about all of us,” says Combs. “I’m a hopeful, positive person, and I don’t like to dwell too long on the negative, but it’s so in our faces. There’s no way not to be apprehensive of the world around you right now.”
A sense of danger and violence underlies the entire record, much as it does the entire country, but it only serves to make the moments of beauty and connection here that much more poignant. Life is short and the clock is ticking. Andrew Combs doesn’t plan to waste a second.